Feb 5, 2021 - Technology

Tech's union push

Illustration of a fist as a cursor icon

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

After avoiding unions for decades, tech workers are increasingly interested in ways that the labor movement might help give them a stronger voice inside their powerful organizations.

Why it matters: We're not about to see broad-scale unionization at tech companies — but even a small foothold could serve as a check on the power of Amazon, Google and others.

Driving the news:

On Thursday, the Alphabet Workers Union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Bureau on behalf of a member who works at Modis Engineering, a subcontractor that provides data center services for Google.

  • The complaint alleges that she was unfairly suspended and criticized after engaging in protected activities such as voicing support for the union and discussing pay and working condition issues.

Yes, but: The Google effort got off to a strong start, but has already hit some bumps as members were blindsided by an effort to take the push global.

The big picture: Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor expert and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, notes that while unions are thought of as representing assembly-line workers, some of the most powerful unions today are ones that represent highly paid, very specialized workers, such as professional football players.

  • By contrast, many unions that represent manufacturing employees have lost power in recent decades as companies can use the threat or reality of moving work overseas.
  • "Unions are for a variety of reasons disappearing among actual low-wage, blue collar assembly workers," he said.
  • He points to the unionization of actors and other movie industry professionals in the 1930s as an example of well paid workers pushing back against a very powerful institution — the Hollywood studios.

Between the lines: Tech is actually seeing both kinds of unionization efforts. The Alabama workers at Amazon, for example, are warehouse workers and a modern example of a typical organized labor effort.

  • The minority union effort at Google is more akin to the Hollywood example, though actors, writers, directors and even producers are represented by full unions, rather than the minority union approach being taken at Alphabet.
  • What unites them is that they both represent a break in values and goals between tech’s managerial class and the rank and file, and are an expression of the latter trying to band together to increase its power against the former.

Changing attitudes are behind some of the renewed effort, Lichtenstein said.

  • "We do have a sizable proportion of the young people in this country open to radical ideas now in a way they weren’t for many years," he said. "I think that is having an impact on Silicon Valley."

Reality check: Lichtenstein said workers don't have to unionize fully to be successful. Simply organizing and speaking out without getting fired can be a victory for labor, he said.

  • But, he cautions, it is "not clear that will be the case."
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